Dating on sitcoms like Mom is always awkward; how does a television show get an audience to invest in a relationship that only lasts for 22 minutes – or at best, a few hours? For decades, comedies have struggled to make relationships between main characters and strangers meaningful in the short-term, in turn making it hard for the audience to know whether a particular story was worth investing in. With characters like Sam Malone, it was pretty easy to tell; by comparison, however, Frasier’s lack of a lead romantic interest for its protagonist made the task a lot harder for writers.
Mom‘s always had a built-in signifier for whether something was an episode-long fling or a Serious Relationship; Christy’s careful approach to her adult sex life, and Bonnie’s tendencies to not date (even though she talks about sex 24/7), make it easy to tell when Mom is really looking to explore one of its main characters; unlike most sitcoms, intimacy on Mom has true meaning for its characters, and its presence naturally heightens their stories in ways typical modern comedies don’t, making it a lot easier to invest in their stories. “My Little Pony and a Demerol Drip” is one of those episodes – and yet, its genius lies not with the relationship between Christy and Fred, but in how their relationship brings definition to Candace, arguably the show’s most undefined presence.
The first half of “My Little Pony” brings back the familiar conversations Christy has had with Bonnie and Marjorie in the past when she’s considered sleeping with someone; this time, however, it’s a device used to disguise the episode’s true focus, Christy’s nemesis Candace. It’s a genius move; not only does “My Little Pony” give meaning to Christy and Fred’s relationship when she does decide to sleep with him, but it uses that decision to set the table for a more compelling story about Christy and Candace. Naturally, as their relationship matures, we see Christy and Fred becoming more comfortable together – so comfortable, in fact, Fred wants everyone to get together and have a meal, a Sunday brunch that provides the setting for the most poignant, heartbreaking moment of the season (yeah, including Jodi’s mini-arc).
While Bonnie swims in the seas of “her people” during brunch at the country club, Christy notices how mean Fred can be to Candace, making ‘jokes’ about her weight, her upbringing, and her reliance on his financial success throughout her life. Now, this scene only works because of what precedes it; when Christy opens herself up physically to Fred, their relationship shifts; with sexual tension finally out of the way, Christy and Fred naturally begin slipping back into the more comfortable, familiar versions of themselves. For Christy, that means a return of her compassionate side; as she watches Fred passively accost his daughter at lunch (a dramatic moment Sara Rue plays beautifully as Candace, I might add), Christy begins to piece together just exactly why Candace turned out to be the woman she did, and why she was so angry that Christy would think it’s ok to date him. There’s suggestion of it earlier when Candace shows up drunk and suggests Christy is getting all the attention she never got, but the comedy of that scene doesn’t give a lot of room for that dissonant relationship to become clear; at brunch, Fred makes it abundantly obvious that he’s a pretty terrible father, which naturally is a deal-breaker for Christy (and Bonnie, had she been in her right mind throughout the episode).
In a matter of seconds, “My Little Pony” shifts from a romantic story into something else completely; and even though Fred reveals himself to be yet another short-lived sitcom romance, Mom doesn’t let Fred go quietly into the night. In the end, it turns out Fred’s admiration for Christy’s life only went so far, his respect for her dissolving into bitterness when she questions whether he understands Candace’s emotions or not. But even there, Mom finds interesting wrinkles in a predictable infatuation-to-breakup story arc; in the end, Christy gains a new found respect for Candace (despite how terrible a person she remains), finally able to separate herself from some of the bitterness she feels towards her now that she knows she’s mostly terrible because that’s all she ever learned to be.
I could talk for ages about how elegantly this two-part episode defined its protagonist’s maturity across three seasons (and two decades, if we count back to 1996); but the true brilliance of “My Little Pony and a Demerol Drip” is found in the brunch scene, and how it instantly redefined the entire arc of these two episodes. And how it shifts is not in service of some gimmick or punch line; it is all about bringing pathos to Candace’s character, a difficult task unto itself given how thinly she’s been portrayed to this point. With its dynamic second act shift and poignant conclusion, “My Little Pony and a Demerol Drip” sets a high bar for Mom as it kicks off 2016.
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